How the left went wrong

In early 2003, the largest co-ordinated protests in history took place against the Iraq war. This, a

No one who looked at the liberal left from the outside could pretend that it provided anything other than token opposition to the "insurgents" from the Ba'ath Party and al-Qaeda. The British Liberal Democrats, the Continental social-democratic parties, the African National Congress and virtually every leftish newspaper and journal on the planet were unable to accept that the struggles of Arabs and Kurds had anything to do with them. Mainstream Muslim organisations were as indifferent to the murder of Muslims by Muslims in Iraq as they were to those in Darfur. For most world opinion, Tony Blair's hopes of "giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty" counted for nothing. The worst of the lot were the organisers of the UK anti-war demonstrations who turned out to be not so much against war, but on the wrong side.

Their leader, George Galloway, was a bombastic Scottish Labour MP who combined blood-curdling rhetoric with a whining sentimentality, like many a thug before him. In the Nineties, his political career appeared to be dead. Contrary to popular prejudice, successful politicians don't always love the sound of their own voice. The ones who get on learn to hold their tongue and speak for a purpose. Galloway was too fond of grandstanding to make it in the best of times for the left. When new Labour took charge, many Scottish bruisers from the old left found preferment under Blair, who, like all prime ministers, needed his enforcers. But Galloway missed the boat, and perhaps never wanted to board it. He seemed an irrelevant backbencher who could hope only for the occasional appearance on talk radio, but he proved that a minor politician from democratic Britain could build an alternative career in Arab dictatorships. Their state-controlled media quoted approved foreigners at length, giving Galloway the attention he could not get at home. The unending tyranny of totalitarian Iraq and the ephemeral glitz of Celebrity Big Brother seem as far apart as it is possible to be. But the anti-war movement should not have been surprised that Galloway ended up as an exhibit on a TV freak show. The celebrity and the totalitarian share a desire to have their face in every news paper and on every television screen. Both are what the playwright Heathcote Williams called "psychic imperialists", who want to col onise the minds of millions.

In 1994, long before he crawled around the Big Brother house, Galloway made his first steps towards stardom when Iraqi TV showed him bending the knee before Saddam Hussein. He gave the most emphatic demonstration of the switch on the left when he flew to Baghdad in the aftermath of the first war against Saddam and declared: "I thought the president would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the war, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam . . . Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem." If you listened to what Galloway said, you noticed a difference from what had gone before. With the brief exception of the two years of the Hitler-Stalin pact, 20th-century fellow-travellers had to choose between communism and fascism, but in the 21st century you could refuse to be "judgemental" about any system as long as it was anti-democratic.

Galloway saluted the fascistic perpetrator of racial extermination campaigns, but he was just as keen on communism. He lamented "the disappearance of the Soviet Union", and said it was "the biggest catastrophe of my life". When asked about his admiration for Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba, he said, "I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator." When Saddam was gone, Galloway went to Ba'athist Syria, even though it was the sworn enemy of Ba'athist Iraq, and applauded it as "the last castle of the Arab dignity and the Arab rights". Saddam had launched an unprovoked war against Iran, but when Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy in Lebanon, began a war with Israel, a finger-jabbing Galloway bellowed to a rally in London, "Hezbollah has never been a terrorist organisation. I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance." Stalinism, Castroism, Islamism, Ba'athism, the old distinctions no longer held. Any ism would do as an alternative to democracy.

Such was the leader of the Stop the War Coalition, a man offered columns by the Guardian, the parish magazine of the "liberal" English middle class, and buttered up with oily profiles in the New York Times, the parish magazine of the "liberal" American middle class. A respectable movement of the right or the left would have refused to have anything to do with him, but the fever George W Bush provoked and the waning power of liberal principles meant that not one heckler raised a voice in protest when he addressed the London marchers who were so eager to chant "Not in my name".

A theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining. Not only do the thoughts of apparently inconsequential figures - Michel Aflaq, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Sayyid Qutb - take off, but the extreme parties magnify trends in wider society. The Socialist Workers Party, Galloway's backer and the real force behind the Stop the War Coalition, distinguished itself by taking the opportunism and control-freakery of conventional politics and pushing them further than any democratic party would dare, when it ordered its pliant members into an alliance with the Islamic right in which not one of the old taboos held.

Take fascist conspiracy theory. Globalise Resistance, an anti-capitalist group dominated by the SWP, first proposed a global day of protest against the war at the "Cairo Conference" of anti-war activists. The delegates sounded as if tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany had inspired them when they declared that the 2003 war against Iraq was the result of a "Zionist plan, which targets the establishment of the greater State of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates".

Rich script

Making friends with your enemy's enemy is a familiar tactic, but it is not as uncomplicated as it seems. More often than not, you have to betray your old friends when you conclude your pact. The organisers of the anti-war demonstrations and their friends treated Iraqi left-wingers like criminals because they refused to take up arms against the Americans as the script of the rich world's left said they must.

Instead of supporting the far right, the uppity natives said they wanted to escape from al-Qaeda and the Ba'ath and to participate in free elections. Iraqi trade unionists in particular were met with the most implacable hatred. At the 2004 European Social Forum speaker after speaker supported the "resistance". No one booed when one said that those who questioned the motives of the suicide bombers who were murdering daily (mainly Muslim) civilians were guilty of "anti-Islamic racism". They dismissed the leaders of the Iraqi left as "quislings", even when they were men such as Hadi Saleh. The left would once have hailed him a hero for risking his life for the welfare of humanity. Saleh was a printer and trade union organiser whom the Ba'athists arrested as soon as they came to power in 1968. He sat on death row for five years. They let him go, and he fled to Sweden with his wife. Like many in the Iraqi Communist Party, he lost his faith in Moscow after it cut deals with Saddam and started a long journey towards constitutional politics. He had to live with a constant fear of assassination. Saleh opposed the war of 2003, but returned home after it was over. From next to nothing he and his comrades built a mass movement in the face of the indifference or hostility of the Americans, who were so lost in conservative dogma they didn't grasp that free societies and free trade unions go together. They came for him, of course. The professional nature of the torture wounds on his body suggested that "they" were Ba'athist secret policemen rather than Bin Ladenists. When he was dead, they took his union records to give them the names of more people to kill.

I've never felt as ashamed of my trade of liberal journalism as I did at the time of his murder. The BBC boasts that it questions without fear or favour. But when you hire upper-middle-class arts graduates, pay them well and allow them to work, eat and sleep together in west London, there's bound to be a "Collective Group Think". In Iraq's case, it did not come out in the hard questions they asked the other side, but in the soft questions they asked their own side. For years, the BBC's attack-dog presenters couldn't manage to give one opponent of the war a tough interview. Not even Galloway. My colleagues were rich men and women by British standards, let alone world standards. They kept silent so they could maintain the illusion that the family of the "left" was flawless. No one would have tortured them if they had spoken out. No one would have beaten their genitals, broken their bones, strangled them with an electric flex and then stolen their address book so that they could do the same to their friends. The worst they would have got were contemptuous looks at dinner parties, badges of honour at the time.

When I asked my colleagues why the fact that an anti-war movement being led by apologists for Saddam was not a story, when a Countryside Alliance led by neo-Nazis would have been, they said, "Well, the people who went on their demonstrations didn't agree with Galloway and the SWP. They followed Robin Cook, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and the Liberal Democrats." This was true up to a point. "And anyway," they continued, "it didn't matter" - an answer which showed how little they understood the world around them.

The convergence of far-left and far-right ideas is not the only reason for taking a good look at the organisers of the anti-war marches. Because they said they were on the left, they had to face an argument that was to confront men and women with status, in the BBC, liberal media, NGOs, Liberal Democrats and the centre-left governments of Europe, South America and South Africa. All right, it ran, you say the war against Iraq was illegal, and you wish it had never happened; you're appalled by the casualties and sickened by Bush. That's fine, and you have a point, but now that far-right psychopaths are ravaging the country, are you going to stand up for your social-democratic principles and support the victims or does anything go for you, too?

"What's Left? How liberals lost their way" is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99). Next week, John Kampfner reviews Nick Cohen's book

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood